Dan Buettner traveled to the world’s happiest places and brought back their delightful tips.
Your level of happiness isn’t set in stone. So when Dan Buettner, author of Thrive: Finding Happiness the Blue Zones Way, learned that there are entire countries where the average happiness level was skyrocketing (we’re looking at you, Denmark, Switzerland, Norway and Finland, according to the 2018 World Happiness Report), he decided to travel to them to discover their tricks. And remarkably, he realized that while Americans are not happy as a whole — we sadly (genuinely) ranked 18th, dropping four spots from last year — we can do better.
Everyone is born with a predetermined happiness level that accounts for about 50% of their mood, says Gretchen Rubin, author of Better Than Before and Happier at Home, and host of the podcast Happier. Another 10-20% of happiness has to do with your life circumstances, including your health, income, education level and marital status, she says. The remaining 30-40% is up to you, Rubin says.
You simply have to incorporate a few tricks from the countries that mastered happy, Buettner says. We spoke with Buettner, along with other happiness experts, to learn how to up our happiness levels.
1. Create a balanced happiness portfolio
Just as you should have a balanced financial portfolio, you should also have a balanced happiness portfolio, which should be a mixture of pride, pleasure and purpose. “If you’re already working super hard, and you’re financially secure, and you’ve already achieved your goals, it doesn’t make sense to work harder and to make more money,” Buettner says. “So switch over to the other two areas.” Not sure if your happiness portfolio is balanced? Buettner has a five-minute free test that’ll tell you which areas need improvement for you to be happy.
2. Face-to-face contact
In America, the average person spends 41 minutes a day having face-to-face contact, while in Costa Rica, Buettner found, people are thriving from being social and having so much intimate contact. Homes are located close together, and there’s a huge emphasis on family and social relationships. The ideal amount of social interaction per day is six hours, Buettner says. “It’s hard to remember to talk to people that often, but if you live close together, shop in the market, and interact with the butcher and the vegetable salesman, you’re naturally getting that six hours a day of interaction.”
3. Curate a happy social network
Pity parties may be fun, but they’re not going to bring you true joy, Buettner says. Instead, try to become friends with happy people because it’s scientifically proven that having happy friends will make you happier, while having sad friends will make you sad. Feelings, it turns out, are contagious. For every happy person you add as your friend, you’ll increase your happiness level by 15%, Buettner says. “If you have friends who sit around and complain or gossip in unkind ways, you’ll be miserable,” he says. Each unhappy friend you add to your tribe will double your chances of being unhappy, according to a study published by the Proceedings of the Royal Society. “The most powerful thing you can do is to surround yourself with five friends who have an appetite for learning, with whom you can have a meaningful connection,” Buettner says.
4. Live in a happy environment
No, you don’t have to move to Denmark. But there are places in the United States that are happier than others, Buettner says. In a 2017 Gallup survey, 13 out of the 15 unhappiest states stretch across the central and southern area of the country, from Michigan to Louisiana. The unhappiest of all was in West Virginia, where 29% of those surveyed were miserable. The happiest were in Hawaii, Colorado and Minneapolis, Buettner says. The difference isn’t a minor one. “If you live in an unhappy place, but move to Boulder or Minneapolis, where they’re 20% happier, then you’re happier,” Buettner says. “In the cities that are happiest, they’re cities where enlightened leaders took the focus away from manufacturing and mining, and implemented policies that favor quality of life: getting kids educated, walkability and access to parks, greenspace and quality food (fruits and vegetables). Can’t move? You can still eat more fruits and vegetables. University of Warwick researchers found that eating more fruits and vegetables substantially increases your happiness levels for each portion up to eight portions per day.
5. Go on a nature walk
Walking through nature has been scientifically proven to lower stress, according to a University of Michigan study. The study found that nature is so powerful that it can be substituted as a nonpharmacological approach to depression. Don’t have easy access to a trail? Simulate one by looking at a picture of nature, according to a study published in the Korean Journal of Radiology. That study found that looking at green landscapes will connect your brain with positive memories, making you happier.
6. Make an effort to have close relationships
In a Harvard Grant Study, scientists tracked 268 Harvard men for nearly 80 years. In 2017, with 19 men remaining in their mid-90s, the study found that close relationships were what kept the men happy — and these relationships made them happier than money or fame. Those who had happy marriages in their 80s said their moods didn’t suffer even when they were in physical pain. “How closely you are connected to people in life is a huge indicator of your happiness,” says Steffani LeFevour, a happiness coach at My Happi Life. “We can create closer connections, find our tribe, make conscious decisions to find the time, to schedule weekly dinners, to do monthly outings.”
If you are sleeping six and a half hours or less per night, then you’re not getting enough sleep, and you’ll be 30% less happy than you would be if you slept eight hours, Buettner says.
8. Pursue your interests
In Denmark — one of the places where people are happiest — the average person works 35 hours per week, which is an ideal amount, Buettner says. Almost everyone there belongs to clubs to pursue their passions, and it’s a place where status is not really celebrated. “People are more free to pursue their values than to pursue material things,” Buettner says. In a study by San Francisco State University, researchers found that experiences rather than material items made people happiest, as the memories from those experiences last longer than the happiness they receive from material things. The experience doesn’t have to be as major as a vacation, however. Simply taking a walk outside, grabbing coffee with a friend or starting a book club can be an experience, Rubin says. If you have to work more than 35 hours per week, try making friends at work, Buettner says. The biggest determinant of whether you like your job and are happy at work is if you have a best friend at work, Buettner says, explaining findings from Gallup happiness surveys. He suggests getting deeper than small talk and really finding a friend you can trust and confide in at work.